I believe independent baseball has an important place in the game today. First, from a standpoint of continuing to provide big league clubs with the largest pool of talent. Second, to continue to market the game to various American outposts and income levels.
Before the explosion of independent baseball in the nineties (thanks to the Northern League and St. Paul Saints), players would have to work out on their own or go to Japan if they didn’t get a contract with one of the big league organizations. Now, they can showcase their talents in leagues that are a cross between Double and Triple-A. Three years ago the Mets signed Brandon Knight out of the Atlantic League. He would go on to make critical starts for them down the stretch in September. Darryl Strawberry spent time in the Northern League in order to get back into the game before the Yankees gave him a second chance. Kevin Millar, Rey Ordonez, and Jeff Zimmerman went on to have solid careers after playing independent baseball. It’s possible none of these stories ever transpire without the help of those leagues.
We take the popularity of the game for granted in the Northeast. We have the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets ruling the roost. The rich history of baseball includes the Giants and Dodgers as well. The game has been rooted in our culture for generations. In various parts of the country this isn’t the case. Football or basketball is what kids grow up playing. New sports such as MMA, X-Games, and even Major League Gaming have started to become popular amongst the new generation. There is only one way to continue growing the spot from an on and off the field perspective: have it in as many places as possible. MLB and MILB can’t do it alone, that’s why leagues such as the Atlantic League, Frontier League, American Association, and Canadian-American Association become important. There are teams in areas of Pennsylvania, Southern Texas, California, and Canada that otherwise wouldn’t have any sort of organized team. They also provide affordable family entertainment. Remember, not everyone can put down $200 bucks to take their family to a big league ballpark.
Is it working? Devon Teeple of the GM Perspective reported in late June the American Association, (821,142), Atlantic League (752,180), and Frontier League (462,254) were leading in attendance. The next tier included the newly formed North American Baseball League (200,000) and the Can-Am League at (170,000). For the NABL it comes out to about 2,000 per game, but considering teams play in outposts like Yuma, Chico, San Angelo, and Canadian cities such as Edmonton and Calgary its nothing to sneeze at.
Can independent baseball survive? It will in the Atlantic League, which has strong Northeast anchors, but for the rest it will require good ownership and cities/municipalities that are committed to working with the team on solid ballpark locations. The Lake County Fielders (also in the NABL) are an example of what happens when ownership and the municipality can’t come to an agreement. Without a home, the team has been unable to draw, thus they have defaulted on payments to team personnel. The team’s radio announcer quit on the air just a month ago because of the frustration of not getting paid for his services. We saw the Atlantic City Surf go under two years ago. It’s possible the Newark Bears will join them. The Schaumburg Flyers went out of business earlier this year because they were unable to pay the rent on their stadium. The NABL came as a result of a merger between the Golden League, Northern League, and United League Baseball in Texas. In short, it’s a challenge to keep the gates open if you can’t pay the bills. I think leagues joining together to form a “power buying group” is smart. The model should be the Atlantic League, which has a couple of strong anchor teams and peripheral cities that are helped by the strength of the overall product.
In the end, I believe independent baseball can work in most places if the right ownership group is in place, and there is a decent facility to play that will allow the fans to be treated to an affordable fun night at the park. The current economic downturn has made this tough, specifically in the Mid-West, but the popularity of the game is such that I think independent baseball can weather the storm and thrive if they focus on the simple principles I laid out above. Of course, that is easier said than done.